Western blot, a method to separate proteins by size and analyse their relative expression levels, is a much maligned technique of molecular cell biology. The website PubPeer is flooded with evidence of manipulated Western blots, where gel lanes were inappropriately spliced, or where bands digitally duplicated or erased. Some even question the technology as such, since it is indeed mostly Western Blots (and other gels, like Northern Blots for RNA or Southern Blots for DNA or RNA PCR-amplification gels) which are flagged for image manipulation.
It is however not the technology to blame for all the rigging done with it, but the simple fact that it is image based. Anyone with a minimum of image analysis skills or a good eye for duplications can spot Western Blot manipulations. You do not need to be an expert in the technology or even a biologist, to find data rigging. This is exactly why a certain aberration in Western Blot integrity is often either overlooked or dismissed as incompetent nitpicking: the absence of proper loading controls. Just like it seems to be occasionally the case in the publications from the lab of Richard Moriggl, director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute Cancer Research and professor at the Medical University of Vienna, Austria. The Moriggl lab studies molecular signalling in cancer cells and tissues, hence its focus on the analysis of regulatory protein phosphorylation and how it changes under various conditions. Such analysis must be always supported by proper gel loading controls, which seems not always be the case here. A reader of my site contacted me with some examples of such inappropriate gel presentation in Moriggl papers, some of which he already posted on PubPeer.
There, a number of Western Blots for a phosphorylated protein seem not to fit the corresponding loading controls provided in the figure. It is not a small issue, because the purpose of such gel analysis is to compare the levels of a certain phosphorylated protein among different samples, say control versus various treatment or a the effect of a treatment at different time points. This is why it is important to ascertain that exactly same amounts of protein-containing cell lysates are present in each gel lane. Here, one does not rely solely on prior protein concentration measurements, but also performs loading controls of the same gel, for a protein which levels are not expected to change in the course of treatments. In the case of phosphorylation analysis, one usually probes with specific antibodies for the same total, non-phosphorylated protein. Only when the equal loading is ascertained can one compare the changing levels of the phosporylation of your protein of interest, or in fact of the overall expression of any other protein you wish to analyse, using corresponding antibodies.
Key point here: it must always be the same gel. It is of no use to detect amazing differences in a protein expression or phosphorylation, while not having a proof that the gel was indeed equally loaded. To probe a different gel where same samples were re-run for an allegedly corresponding loading control does not really make much sense: no two gels are ever exactly same, and a lot of incidental and not so incidental mistakes can happen during the sample loading or the gel run or transfer. This is also why one can spot if the two images really belong to the same physical gel: the lane widths and band sizes and shapes are a give-away if they do not match. Indeed, the sacked cheater Irina Stancheva was caught not only on gel band duplications, but also on using inappropriate loading controls.
Yet the loading controls are often seen as irrelevant. The fallen star of plant sciences Olivier Voinnet built his misconduct defence on his having used a loading control library, where he pulled out a gel image to fit the analysis he aimed to publish. A loading control duplication in a paper from Ronen Alon’s lab at Weizmann Institute was also explained with the use of such libraries (see here). In any case, even if the loading control panel is found to be photoshopped or duplicated, even some established scientists will object: it is just a loading control! The main analytic Western Blot panels are perfectly fine! This is however absolute nonsense, from the scientific point of view. Every Western Blot analysis needs a loading control, done for exactly same gel. Otherwise the entire protein expression analysis becomes utterly useless and one can skip using figures in scientific publications altogether.
Moriggl never replied to my emails. Hence I contacted the Medical University of Vienna with the evidence in his papers, in August 2017 (incidentally, one member of their Scientific Advisory Board is the radiologist and self-plagiarist Hedvig Hricak, from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) in New York, read here). The Vice-Rector for Research, Michaela Fritz replied to me the next day:
“Thank you for the information. After consultation with the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, the case will be taken up by the Ombudsman of the Vetmeduni, which has already contacted you”.
Indeed, the Ombudsperson of the Vetmeduni Vienna, Mathias Müller wrote to me in parallel:
“Your mail from 23 August 2017 to the management of the Medical University of Vienna was forwarded to the Ombudsoffice of the Vetmeduni. The issues are currently being discussed with the authors. The PubPeer presentations will be addressed with the publishers by submitting point-to-point comments”.
Prior to writing this article, I asked the Ombudsman Müller for an update, but received no reply. There are more inconsistencies in Moriggl papers, like this collaborative paper Gotthardt et al Cancer Discovery 2016 from the neighbouring Vienna lab of Veronica Sexl at the same Medical University Vienna. Interestingly, Sexl has other papers flagged on PubPeer and had already to correct one, namely Kollmann et al, Cancer Cell 2013.
It is of course very likely that correct loading controls will be found and Moriggl will be able to correct his publications to show the matching pairs of gels. Those papers are very fresh after all, the data is certainly readily available. Otherwise readers would be forced to be sceptical about the scientific validity of these Western blot analyses. Without the correct loading control for the exactly same gel, to show the protein loading ratios, a celebrated difference in expression or phosphorylation of a regulatory protein might be nothing but an artefact.
Update 2.11.2017. Matthias Müller, ombudsman of the Vetmeduni Vienna, wrote me this email today:
“Dear Dr Schneider!
With regard to your e-mail dated 23.Aug.2017 to the Rectorate of the Medical University of Vienna, which has been forwarded to the Ombudsman of the Vetmeduni, I can inform you that the issues were clarified with the authors of the publications in Cell Death & Disease and Diabetes.
Replies were made to the PubPeer posts by means of ‘point-to-point’ statements and also sent to the editorial boards of Cell Death & Disease and Diabetes with a request to consider a publication of a corrigendum.
Both Editorial Offices have now approved the Erratum requests and will publish the Corrigenda in the earliest available journal issue”.
Update 13.11.2007. Is the Moriggl lab under investigation by Austrian Science Fund FWF?
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